Saturday, November 16, 2013
"The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder."
I have had an idea for a movie for a very long time and have already written the screenplay. It involves a corpulent and hirsute Athenian setting off of for the Varvakeios market, there to buy the drawn and quartered components of a cow. Upon his return from the said market, clutching blood stained plastic bags, he arranges everything on his kitchen table. Then, to the accompaniment of Mozart's Requiem, he sets to work with needle and thread, re-constituting the dripping pieces of meat and bone into their archetypal bovine form. Just as he manages to sew a cowhide over the gruesome form, he caresses the cow's horns, steps back and admires his handiwork. Subsequently, he leans forward towards the cows jaws and intones sonorously: "Moooooo!" I entitle this work of avant garde cinema "Pygmalion," and it is a deconstruction of the myth of the Cypriot king Pygmalion and his quest to find perfection in the statue of Galatea. It is also as post-modern commentary on the aspirations of the Modern Greeks in their search for an identity. Most importantly, it serves as an outlet for one of my not so readily defensible tenets of belief: that all art is butchery.
Sadly, the local film directors I have spoken to have seemed reluctant to challenge themselves in the creation of such a ground-breaking motion picture, citing budget constraints and ethical reservations, despite the fact that I am willing to interpose between the credits, a disclaimer that states that no animal was unduly inconvenienced during the making of the same. Lamentably, I readily believe that it shall be doomed never to see the light of any screen, except the silk screen behind which I will endeavour to enact it with shadow puppets, as a sideshow to a future Antipodean Greek Film Festival launch, possibly the thirtieth anniversary of the same, in tribute to its fine work in presenting to a wide audience, a broad cross section of Greek film and as a symbol of our desperate need to deconstruct and thus understand our cultural heritage. Meanwhile, the screenplay for my film about three Oakleigh ultranationalists who, fed up with the British refusal to hand over the Elgin Marbles resolve to travel to London and steal them themselves, is currently being written.
This year, of course, marks the twentieth anniversary of what has become both an institution and a highlight of the Melburnian cultural calendar. The Greek Film Festival, a flagship event of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria has in that time, been embraced not only by the Greek community at large but also, by the broader community as well. It is easy to see why. Going to the movies is passive and anonymous. Further, the silver screen, accompanied by subtitles, provides a general and easily accessible insight into the complexities, assumptions and contexts of Modern Greek life, without demanding much in return and this is why Jim Morrison observed that film spectators are quiet vampires. Thus, in many ways, the Greek Film Festival is nothing more than the evolution of the nineteen eighties staple pastime of the whole family congregating in large numbers at a designated uncle's house, simply because he had in his possession, power and/or custody, the latest VHS release from Stavros Video. Today, the family is the entire Greek community and it is the good chairpersons of the Greek Film Festival, along with their cohorts, familiars and retainers who are so generously doing the sharing.
The popular success of the Greek Film Festival seems counter-intuitive. One would have thought that the advent of Greek satellite television and its accessibility to a multitude of Greek-Australian homes would have spelled the end for the need for organised viewings, such viewings being more easily undertaken in the comfort and privacy of one's home. Militating against this view however are two key factors, firstly that Greek commercial television programming is so inane and toxic that relief in the form of alternative forms of visual media is a necessity and secondly, the nature and character of our community as an intricate connection of personal and institutional networks that coalesce into a large family construct, is such that the need for large, broad based viewing events has increased rather than diminished. It says much for the cultural sensitivity and grass-roots contact with our community possessed by the chairpersons of the Greek Film Festival, the aethereal and multifaceted Tammy Iliou and the irrepressibly suave and debonair Leonidas Vlahakis, as well as its director, the inexpressibly omniscient Penny Kyprianou, that they have, during their able and inspired administration, presided over a Film Festival that is not so arty and obscure so as to be rendered elitist and inaccessible and at the same time, not so trashy and pedestrian as to be rendered irrelevant. In the least, they inspire infinitely more confidence in us than the great Christina Aguilera who famously asked: "So where is the Cannes Film Festival being held this year?" Instead, their careful selection and presentation of films endeavours to present the latest development in Modern Greek film, with all of the cultural baggage that is contained therein.
In doing so, they have provided us with some of the finest moments of our collective experience, throughout the years. I will never forget the beaming feel-good smiles of the audience emerging from the cautionary classic: «Η Κάλπικη Λύρα.» Similarly, the group tears and cries of passion emerging unsolicited from the audience and in unison during the screening of "Touch of Spice" or "Brides," were I believe, moments of historical importance for our sense of community. Finally, I will never forget watching elderly viewers squirm and shield their eyes while watching homosexual acts between a young boy masquerading as a nun and an escaped Janissary in the thoroughly disturbing and engrossing "Black Field." The tension in the cinema reached a crescendo as the love scenes became more pronounced. Then, during a scene where the boy, straddling the Janissary lifts his nun's robes in order to reveal male genitalia belief, someone in the audience blurted out: «Θέλω να με κάνεις να νιώσω γυναίκα.» All of a sudden, the tension was dispelled as the audience was racked with peals of continuous laughter, elaborating upon Samuel Goldwyn's belief that while a wide screen makes a bad movie twice as bad, it can also make it twice as funny. It is of moments of these that our collective experience is comprised.
This year, the Film Festival offers up the usual cross section of modern Greek films, characterised as they are by their bleak though not completely nihilistic outlook on life, anarchic tendencies, incisive humour and uncompromising honesty. These perennial traits, which many of the older generations brought up on the more genteel mass productions of the fifties and sixties find so confronting, have formed the undercurrent of Greek film from its inception. As a retrospective, the Film Festival also showcases old favourites that have been loved and appreciated by cinema goers in previous festivals. Finally, and most importantly, the Festival showcases the efforts of Greek-Australian short film-makers, via the Greek-Australian Short Film Festival, one that deserves the same if probably not more attention. This is because the Festival provides us with a unique and valuable opportunity to analyse how Greek-Australians interpret the place of a culture that is inherited more than experienced, within an Australian context and how such interpretations can be expressed in visual form. Truly their films, to paraphrase Cocteau are a veritable fountain of thought and it is to the Greek Film Festival's credit that local films are given their deserved prominence.
It was the great Orson Welles who maintained that : "A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet." This is my selling pitch of Pygmalion, a film that deserves a Film Festival all of its own, for after all, Jean Luc Godard is right in maintaining that "Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world." It is to this fraudulent beauty that this year's Greek Film Festival offers a well needed and artful escape from convention and the daily chewing of the cud.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 16 November 2013